Meditation on Matthew 14:13-21
Rev. Chris Stewart, Guest Preacher
The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, Ohio
August 2, 2020
What a year this has been.
We are social creatures. So, it’s no surprise that COVID-19 fatigue has set in for so many of us. We humans are wired to come together physically, but social distancing has just made that nearly impossible. Obviously, there is no playbook for COVID-19.
We are still developing guidelines that explain how isolation should be done, how hospitals should be prepared, or what we can expect when and if things start to go back to normal. The truth is much of what we are doing is unscripted, unknowable, and uncertain. And that, it turns out, is creating a great deal of anxiety, fear, and even depression for Americans.
I hear a lot of folks saying that they feel a kind of emptiness inside them. It’s as if, perhaps, many of us are grieving what we have lost—the ability to have backyard cookouts with our friends, get-togethers at Church, in-person worship…or even being able to go out to eat or grab a cup of coffee with a friend. Others are struggling to piece together money to pay bills, or they’re worried about their health and safety (or that of everyone in their house).Today, Americans are reporting more symptoms and signs of depression, anxiety, and fear than historic norms.
It’s easy to feel lonely when so many people are staying close to home, avoiding gatherings, and many businesses are shuttered. Social connection is essential to our well-being, and prolonged isolation can increase the risk of depression and anxiety, and emptiness.
But that doesn’t mean we just throw up our hands. What it does mean is its time to start doing something about it.
This morning’s Gospel Lesson from Matthew is the only miracle, aside from the Resurrection, that is included in all four Gospels. This should tell us something about its importance.
One of the things I like best about the feeding of the 5,000 is that this miracle captures Jesus’ concern for both the material and spiritual needs of people. In this story Jesus heals the sick, encourages people when they are sad, and when they are hungry—he feeds them.
And the key word that holds all this together is “compassion.” “Jesus…saw a crowd” and “he had compassion on them.” Of all the descriptions of how Jesus views us—that is my favorite—by far.
In the Gospels, we are told that Jesus had compassion on folks before He healed them, compassion for sinners, for the lost, for the lonely, for the sad, and when he was traveling through the different villages we are told that “he had compassion on [the people], because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
That is Who our Savior is—that is what our God is like. The verb “have compassion” is always evoked by a need that Jesus sees.
Jesus is very observant. He looks at the crowds with a heart sensitive to their needs. And what Jesus sees is the helplessness of people, and that touches Him deeply. He feels compassion. He is moved to help people and to teach His disciples the great necessity of really seeing people and having compassion for them. Compassion is a feeling, and like any feeling, it’s not something we can just decide to have. It comes in reaction to something.
I personally believe that our capacity to have compassion is shaped by how we look at others. It’s a way in which we are able to identify with people, and it seems to me that this empathetic identification with others begins when we listen well to the other person. This is what Jesus did and does. I mean, to hear someone is one thing. To really listen is to hear and to appreciate where someone else stands, how someone else feels, how someone else thinks. It’s a means by which we take another person seriously and thus give them dignity.
We can’t have compassion unless we enter into another person’s life by identifying with them. And that is what Jesus does. That is also what, we, as Jesus’ followers are called to do as well. And when we do this, it helps to fill our empty spaces.
Our Gospel Passage this morning starts in the middle of something else that is going on.
What do I mean by that?
Well, just look at verse 13 where we began.
It says, “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns.”
What has Jesus just heard? King Herod has executed Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. He had been beheaded as a party favor for Herod’s daughter.
It’s no wonder Jesus needed some time alone to pray and grieve.
But Jesus is not the only one to hear the gruesome news. We are told the crowds have also heard about John’s murder. And so, the people are understandably frightened and are seeking after Jesus for both comfort and guidance.
Thus, while Jesus is out in a boat on the sea, they follow Him on foot from the shore. And so, when Jesus brings His boat to shore, He sees this huge crowd of people.
He sees their grief. He sees their fear. He sees their longing for hope and a word of encouragement. He sees their emptiness, and He has compassion on them. He knows and identifies with what they are feeling, and He reaches out and heals their sick.
He spends the day in conversations with them and then night begins to fall. And this is when the disciples come to Jesus with a genuine concern that the people need to leave to avoid the problems of being stuck on the road, in the dark with no food.
“This is a remote place,” they say, “Send the crowds away, so that they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
But Jesus takes a different approach: “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” And in calling on His disciples to get involved in this temporary refugee problem, Jesus makes clear His expectation for us, as His disciples, is to tap into His compassion to make good things happen. And in doing so, Jesus is entrusting us to be a part of the miracles of God.
That’s pretty amazing, to say the least.
And those of us who have been involved in the Food Pantries have experienced this miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 over and over again…
And look at all that has happened.
Thousands of people have been fed.
We normally have leftovers, more than we need…
One of the awesome things about this story in Matthew Chapter 14 is that it captures the way Jesus challenges us to address a problem and not ignore it.
Now the disciples were shocked by what Jesus was suggesting, and that’s because the disciples were approaching this situation with a theology of scarcity rather than a theology of plenty.
Ever find yourself thinking this way?
“We don’t have enough.”
“We can’t do this.”
“It’s out of the question.”
“We have only five loaves of bread and two fish!”
I wonder did the miracle occur, as Barbara Brown Taylor suggested, when the meager basket of bread and fish was passed among the people and they dug into their pockets to add the secret bit of bread they had brought along the journey? By the time the baskets had been passed around, had people taken enough to eat, but also put a little back in to share with others because that seemed like the only right thing to do?
I don’t know how miracles occur, but the gospel tells us that when the faithful act boldly, sharing our resources with others, miraculous things begin to happen. When people trust in God and act with compassion, scarcity can and often is transformed into abundance.
But Jesus wants us to think, not in terms of what we don’t have, but rather in terms of what God has given us—and that’s a theology of plenty!!!
And this is important to remember especially during this time of COVID-19.
What has God entrusted us with, even in times such as these?
We still have our church.
We have resources.
There are means by which we can grow in our relationship with God and other people—even if we are socially isolating—we just must look at things through the eyes of Christ.
We need people who will make phone calls and organize volunteers.
We need this desperately.
You can do this from home.
You know, it is when we are sharing in God’s work that life becomes meaningful.
And we can do this, even as we socially isolate.
And for that, I am so grateful.
How about you?
I think the message God is giving us in our Gospel Lesson for this morning is that if we will embrace a challenge, bringing forward what we have, no matter how little, then God will do the rest—and what God does with what we offer Him is always more than sufficient to get the job done.
You know, this story is a sharp reminder to us that we, as individual Christians, must never be so wrapped up in our own problems and concerns that we withdraw from the world and refuse to be a part of the ministry of Jesus Christ—which is providing help, love and support when others are in need.
Left alone, we can easily think like the disciples and say: “Send them away…they are not our concern…they aren’t our problem.” But this is not an attitude our Lord will accept. He, instead, calls us to be generous and share.
This story is a clear call for us—the Church of Jesus Christ to be a compassionate people, which hears and listens to the cries of people and responds to their needs.
And the needs are so great. People are hungering all around us. They are hungering for a deeper connection with God and each other. They are hungering for purpose and meaning. They are hungering for hope. Many are hungering, quite literally, for their next meal.
And our task is to share what we have been given—our talents, our money, our compassion, our love, our time—we are to share what we have been given, trusting that it is enough.
We are to share freely, wildly, irrationally with others, expecting that God will take our limited resources and turn them into a feast to serve thousands.
The feeding of the 5,000 isn’t some kind of spectacle to enlarge Jesus’ fame and popularity among the people, rather it is an insistence by God that we—Jesus’ followers–distinguish ourselves by our love, compassion, resourcefulness, generosity and faith.
We are called to have the compassion of Christ. And this is what fills our empty spaces along with filling the empty spaces of the world.
Today, even though we are living in desperate and lonely times, are called to learn what it means to follow Jesus. What an opportunity we have. What grace Christ offers! What more could we need or ask for? This is a great time to be alive.
Jesus Christ had suffered the loss of His cousin, John the Baptist. But instead of focusing on Himself and what He lost, Jesus looked outward toward the crowd. And that is where we find TRUE freedom—when we think of the needs of others before ourselves. We are called to compassion. The crowds are starving for love, for hope, for meaning, for God.
Jesus says to you, Jesus says to me: “Don’t send them away. YOU give them something to eat.”